October 23, 2020

From Mississippi Delta to Jerusalem: A story of one man’s conversion

Ron Baker converted from Christianity to Judaism at Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo way back in 1966, when he was 16 years old.

These days, the 69-year-old Baker lives part time in Mooreville, and when he’s in town, he serves as the director of religious education at Temple B’Nai.

But for about six months of every year, Baker doesn’t live in Mississippi. Like many semi-retired people, Baker splits his time between two residences.

Unlike most of those people whose second residence is in the United States — maybe a cabin in the woods or a coastal bungalow — Baker’s second residence is in the Monastery of the Sisters of Zion on via Dolorosa Street in ancient Jerusalem.

But then again, Baker isn’t like most people.

Born in Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta, Baker is a psychotherapist and former Bourbon Street bartender who has lived part time in Israel since 2002.

Baker said he spends his time at the monastery reading, studying, teaching courses in Judaism, and occasionally seeing patients.

“I usually read about 12 hours a day,” he said.

Baker said although he was raised in a conservative Christian denomination, his conversion to Judaism felt like a homecoming.

“I’m a convert, but I feel like I’ve always been Jewish,” he said.

Baker said his childhood experiences in the Delta and the influence of his paternal grandmother informed his decision to convert.

“I lived with my grandparents in the Delta,” he said. “All our neighbors were Jewish and my grandmother was a Pentecostal Zionist who’d put me to bed at night reading the stories of King David and telling me I had to live in Jerusalem.”

Baker said it was after his family moved to Tupelo that he took the first official step toward a full embrace of Judaism.

“I was praying for a sign,” he said. “I hadn’t told anyone. I remember my gym teacher Dee Dee Ruff, who wasn’t Jewish either, had invited me to an ecumenical service at Temple B’Nai. I walked through those doors and felt like I was home.”

Baker said when non-Jews decide to officially convert to Judaism, they are expected to present themselves before a rabbi.

“You go to a rabbi and say, ‘I want to become a Jew,'” he said. “Three times, the rabbi will say, ‘No you don’t; get out of here!’ Jews believe the righteous of all nations will have a place in the world to come, so the rabbi will tell you you don’t need to be a Jew, and he will warn you that as a Jew, you have to be a high priest to all the nations.”

Baker said while conversions to Judaism from other faiths are common, even those who have grown up in Jewish families must have a “conversion” of their own.

“I want people to understand,” he said. “All Jews are converts. Until you accept it as your own, you’re not a Jew. It’s not a bloodline thing or an ethnic thing. You’re not a real Jew until you ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.’ Those are the words of our greatest rabbi.”

After graduating from Louisiana College, Baker said he moved to Israel in 1973, just as a war was breaking out.

“I went there to live and to become a Jew,” he said. “I was living in a kibbutz near the Jordanian border when the Yom Kippur War broke out.”

Baker said he was unwillingly drawn into the conflict, which lasted for three weeks.

“They gave you a weapon and if you didn’t shoot anyone friendly, they let you keep it,” he said with a wry chuckle. “I sat in a date grove surrounded by tanks waiting for the Jordanians to attack.”

Baker said after the war he left Israel and moved to Paris for a time before settling in New Orleans, where he earned a master’s degree in social work from LSU.
Baker said he worked for 25 years at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, followed by another 10 years in geriatric psychiatry before world events prompted him to move back to Israel in 2002.

“After 9/11, I realized this was the beginning of World War III,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘Where do I want to fight this war?’ I wanted to be in Israel, where they’ve been fighting it since before 1948.”

When Baker isn’t living and teaching in Jerusalem, he teaches Torah study classes at Temple B’Nai in Tupelo.

He said he is encouraged by the number of recent converts to Judaism in the United States, and remains hopeful about the future of small congregations like B’Nai Israel.

“Some say we are dying,” he said. “In America, we’ve lost a couple million Jews, but we’ve gained 800,000 converts who are disaffected with Christianity. Half our congregation at Temple B’Nai are converts.”